How has United Group evolved since its humble beginning in 1978? Tell us about the vision and mission with which United Group started its journey. How much of that mission has been achieved?
1978- That was the year when it all began. Three friends, having decided to go into business together acquired a small company for a meager sum, forming a partnership based institution. They worked as contractors for the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh and, in 1979, registered the firm in the name of United Enterprises & Co. Ltd. as a limited liability company.
In the early 80s we got involved in trading with Bulgarian firms bartering radio transmitters and allied equipment in exchange for turnkey solutions for Radio Bangladesh. In fact, this helped establish some of the major radio stations of the country during that time. During the mid-80s, we were the exclusive representative of Koppers Inc. USA in Bangladesh for their wood treating chemicals and wooden poles for Rural Electrification Board (REB). This involvement in import-export sector geared us up for our venture into marine based enterprises.
In the late 80s, we acquired oil tankers for transportation of furnace oil and molasses between Chittagong and Khulna. In the case of the latter, the scenario was almost monopolistic, as we were responsible for almost all inland waterway transport for molasses being exported out of the country. During the same period, we also got engaged with several government projects for the Water Development Board for river training and coastal embankment protection of rivers that were vulnerable to erosion.
Since the early 90s, we decided to branch out the Group into several new directions. We delved into the market for quality real estate projects and over the years we have successfully developed some excellent projects in the premium areas of Dhaka, including Gulshan and Baridhara. In the same decade we acquired Tank Terminals from foreign owners. During that time, this acquisition made us the first private sector firm in the country to operate such a terminal and also made us one of the few Bangladeshi companies to acquire foreign owned establishments. Our achievement of “Zero Handling Loss” during the entirety of terminal operation is unheard of in Bangladesh, a feat hopefully representative of United Group’s professionalism and commitment to its responsibilities.
We entered the power sector of Bangladesh in 1997 through the country’s first Independent Power Plant (IPP), Khulna Power Company Ltd. This established the groundwork for us on which we kept continuing investment in the power sector. Starting with 110 MW 20 years ago, today we have a power generation portfolio of over 2 GW out of which 1.3 GW is already being supplied to the grid and the rest is under various stages of construction.
Since 2000, we saw a number of new doors open up to further possibilities in the commercial world including the timely addition of Neptune Land Development Ltd. in 2003 with the township project, “United City”. 2004 saw formation of United International University followed by United Hospital Ltd. and United Land Port Teknaf Ltd in 2006.
The last 10 years have been extremely busy for us with business opportunities and our involvement leaping forward. The core values have been tremendously beneficial for us over the years. We believe our unique understanding of economic and industrial priorities coupled with local know-how has enabled us to bring forth pioneering solutions in almost every sector we operate in. Our businesses span from Power Generation, Healthcare, Real Estate, Construction, Manufacturing, Yarn Spinning, Education, Land Port, Tank Terminal, Retail, Shipping and Specialized Services with an asset valuation of approximately USD 3.5 billion – we believe this to be a very honorable achievement in a space of only four decades.
We have a vision to be the best brand committed to excellence in all our endeavors. Our mission is to be a socially responsible corporate entity by supporting community development activities. We are committed to socio-economic development of the country and continuously enhancing value for our stakeholders. Even though we still have a long way to go and many new paths to traverse, we believe that we are on course to achieve our mission. Our contributions have been fairly acknowledged and acclaimed both in national and international platforms. We were awarded the Gold, Silver and Bronze Awards at the Asian Power Awards 2015 for United Ashuganj Energy Ltd. The same power plant also went to being awarded the Best Private Sector Power Plant Unit at the National Power & Energy Week 2016. At the 2018’s National Power & Energy Week, United Mymensingh Power Ltd. won the Best Power Producer of 2018 award. For 2 consecutive years Unimart has received the highest taxpayer award. Over the years we have always endeavored to introduce ventures that were unheard of in this region and we will continue our endeavors to keep being the trend-setters for socio-economic development in every sector we invest in.
United Group has successfully established ventures in various industries. How does the company ensure seamless compliance and quality standards across the Board?
Let me begin with a generic answer to this. Like every other organization of our stature and bigger, we have involved professionals throughout the human resource chain. We have a check and balance system in place at every major transaction point. We have gone for external certifications and accreditations for our companies. However, our uniqueness lies in how we structure our chain of command. The shareholding directors of the Group do not just form the board of directors of the companies. They also serve as the chief executives or active management participants overseeing the day to day operation of the Business Units/Companies.
The corporate ethos of the Group comes from the six families who have worked together side by side over the years. The second generation of the founding families are introduced to the Group, trained, and work their way to make a place in the Board in a manner such that these ethos and commitments are integrated into them. Consequently, when they are involved in the day to day management process of the business units, those ethos and commitments get reflected in our actual business practices. Also, because we are involved in the day to day operations and transactional activity, we can put a direct, unfiltered feedback to the Board which directly helps in prompt decision making, strategic thinking and adapting to changes in the market, both at home and abroad.
This approach positively impacts the way compliance and quality standards are maintained across the Board. For instance, if a decision needs to be made regarding quality compliance, it is made at the shortest possible time through internal approvals and external accreditations. We do not have to go through a very cumbersome and bureaucratic process to decide on the next step.
What is the size of human resources in your company and how do you ensure an employee-friendly atmosphere (you can mention some exclusive benefits and training facilities you provide to your employees)? Also, shed light on employee turnover year on year?
United Group maintains its competitive advantage through building up a workforce which is not only skilled but highly motivated as well. To achieve this, we have established a work environment which is empowering, positive and friendly. With a total manpower of 8,700+ and a year on year turnover rate of 0.6%, we have a structured Human Resources Department in place in order to manage this key resource efficiently. Every year, our employees participate in various internal and external events, training programs etc. in order to not only build their skills but to take part in community interaction as well. This ensures that our employees have a cordial relationship with members of their field along with their colleagues. We believe in enhancement of overall quality of life of our employees and the benefits we provide directly impact their standard of living. Other than providing the industry standard benefits, such as health insurance, etc. we plan on providing some exclusive benefits such as residential facilities for the employees as well as subsidized education for their children. Along with this, we already provide scholarships to the meritorious children of the employees as well as award employees annually, who display exceptional skills.
How do you set your annual goal and growth strategy?
This question can be answered in two ways, United embodies both the aspects of growth strategy, in terms of being short-term goal driven as well as being a company that has set long term plans. This is evident in our portfolio of diverse Business Units, for e.g. For our retail based businesses such as Unimart, Chef’s Table, United Lube Oil Ltd, these are the Business Units that are driven by short-term goals. On the other hand, our service-based Business Units such as United Hospital Limited and some parts of our Real Estate division are set with medium term business plans. For our investment heavy sectors like infrastructure/power/large scale/utility scale construction projects, long term goal-driven strategies are set into motion. How, then do we set such goals or growth strategies?
First of all, United Group has always been a partnership since its inception 4 decades ago, so what it entails is that we have access to multiple points of view on the market and as well as the business environment, at all times. It is led by our Chairman, Mr. Hasan Mahmood Raja, under whose stewardship, the Group has invested into multiple sectors, but, this combined field of view that we have over the investment sector really helps us decide on how we want to go forward. We were always known in the market as a socio-economic infrastructure-based company, what that actually entails is we develop projects and/or contribute in a manner that benefits the nation and its residents, all the while making commercial sense. We believe if a project or investment can’t sustain itself financially, it can only be a burden and not have any real value. For example, if you see an investment made by us in the power sector, then that means it was made for the growth/need of the nation, in terms of the country being able to meet its own electricity generation requirements. If you look at our investment in the healthcare sector, you will see that UHL has been active since the time when the local market moved towards tertiary healthcare of a certain quality. Currently, in the energy sector, we are moving away from traditional energy sources, like local natural gas, to imported gas/imported LPG and LNG and we are thinking of getting involved into these long term businesses where the country as a whole will be subjected to this paradigm shift. If you take a glance at the construction division, we were quite heavily invested especially during the real estate boom. These are some of the example we can give which effects our growth and goal strategies but the things we must mention are, first of all, what are our ethos and based on those ethos, growth for the sake of growth is not something we endorse. We only opt for growth strategies, which are organic and natural and does not need to be pushed only for the purpose of showing an increase in our revenue or turnover just to have nicer numbers on our books.
Tell us about your ongoing projects in the sector of construction, power, railway and consumer products?
Let me tell you how we assess a new project. We sincerely want to invest in projects that have a social value. I mean if I want to press on this further, we really want to work in sectors that will help bring about a change, through value addition, in the lifestyle of the people around us. When we ourselves go abroad, we look into things that give us the most comfort which we find is missing here. We enjoy strolling through their supermarkets, having a meal at the food courts is always a pleasure. This is how we identify the gaps here, in our country and it is these gaps where we realize that we can add the most value.
Right now we are in a growing phase. We are heavily investing in multiple sectors. At the moment, on the construction front we have multiple projects in hand. For starters, United City is a township project in Satarkul, about 2.5 km from the US Embassy. With over 300 acres currently under development, 650 plots have already been handed over to a very selective clientele. United Group is also shifting its head offices to United City. United International University and Sir John Wilson School is already operational at United City. We envisage that United City is on course to becoming a self-sustaining town in one of the most premiere locations of Dhaka.
United City will also be home to Dhaka’s first international standard condominium complex – Meghbon. Meghbon is the premium luxury high rise condominium based residential project with sophisticated design and architecture to sway residents away from the buzz of downtown Dhaka. Covering around 53 acres land area within United City – Meghbon will provide a blend of modern and contemporary facilities, recreational activities and lush tropical and beautiful gardens with world class cluster, club and common services that a heart may desire. 70% of the land area is a green zone and open spaces. The residential units come in 2,500 sft, 3,500 sft and 4,500 sft sizes and the 41 penthouse units are of sizes ranging from 14,000 sft to 16,000 sft.
The Airport Hotel & Retail Complex is an integrated commercial complex adjacent to the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, in yet another one of the most prime locations in Dhaka, Bangladesh. With a 4-star hotel, 5-star hotel and a Shopping Mall with a Banquet Hall, encompassing an area of 15.74 acres, is being designed and constructed based on international standards to serve as a one stop destination offering the experience of best in class accommodation, shopping, entertainment and commercial activities to business travelers, tourists and local residents of Bangladesh. Needless to say, this integrated complex is the first airport hotel of Bangladesh and we are constructing this with by our in-house capacity. In the power sector at the moment we have 2 projects in construction phase; one in Karnaphuli EPZ and another at Patuakhali. We are in active discussion with the government regarding a 590 MW Combined Cycle Power Plant Project. We have made good progress in this front as well.
In the railway sector we have been trying to get engaged with the railway department for some time now. F&B sector is something that we have taken a recent interest in. We have plans on bringing Unimart and Food Court to more places. We have recently launched the first community based model pharmacy chain shop in Bangladesh, Wellbeing. Right now we have 5 outlets with near future plans to open more. We feel that there is ample opportunity to improve the pharmacy sector. Rather than the conventional over the counter method, we want to provide a more personalized service and to guide our customers.
Tell us about the CSR and charity initiatives that you perform on an annual basis.
In 2010, to uphold our core value of being a socially responsible corporate entity as well as to accomplish a singular goal of bringing a smile to the faces of thousands of deprived individuals, United Trust was formed. It is the social welfare lifeline as well as the medium for core CSR initiatives of United Group. United Trust has consolidated all its social commitments into four core areas, keeping in line with United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. These four areas are Poverty Alleviation, Education, Health and Community Services.
For Poverty Alleviation, the core method is a system of Interest Free Micro-credit with the primary beneficiaries being the rural women, farmers and marginal businesses. Under this program, there have been over 18,000 beneficiaries with the portfolio being over BDT 13 Crore with an almost 100% loan recovery.
For Education, United Trust is already patronizing over 25 educational institutions with the direct beneficiaries being over 8,000 students. Among these students, 115 students receive yearly scholarships for each stage of their education and 125 orphans receive free food, accommodation along with education. United Trust is also active in various programs that offer aid to disabled and extreme poverty-stricken children. For making good quality healthcare accessible to the needy, United Trust has set up 7 rural clinics with basic diagnostic capabilities across the country, serving over 125,000 patients in 2018.
United Trust’s community development activities are quite diverse, covering a wide range of needs of the society. These activities range from building houses for the needy, providing vocational training for multifarious fields, patronizing institutions such as mosques and etc. The impact of these activities on society are direct and quite apparent. Even with all these ongoing initiatives, United Trust is not willing to rest their efforts. They have developed a multi-tiered plan, with some of the objectives catered towards the short term and the rest for the long term.
Tell us about your future ideas (you can share information about sectors where you see potential and would like to invest in).
I will reiterate a few things I said earlier. We are a socio-economic based infrastructure company. Whatever we have achieved today, whatever heights we have reached, is all because of the opportunities this country has provided to us. As a child we all have unlimited expectations from our mothers, but we often stay confused, or might I say unaware, of our responsibilities towards our mothers. Similarly, we cannot deny all the opportunities and benefits this country has provided to us. When the country is on a steep growth curve, if we cannot do whatever is needed to support its growth then it will be a failure of our commitment towards our country.
As a business house, we are very interested in taking up projects and investing in ventures that will help accommodate all those facilities and amenities in our country that we enjoy when we visit abroad. We have been relentlessly working toward that goal for decades. Be it security, education, healthcare, infrastructure – we are trying. We have had our fair share of struggles, but we are learning just as much. We still have a very long way to go but we are resolute to reach our goal of improving the quality of life around us.
As we all know, Bangladesh has recently graduated to Lower Middle Income Country (LMIC) status. We are keenly observing the market in terms of the opportunities that can be had because of such a rapidly growing market. The consumer market is always attractive in Bangladesh because of our large population base, hence our keenness in F&B business. The year to year growth in our economy is also quite encouraging for industrial development. We are also looking into opportunities that will support factories and establishments. With the energy demand on the rise and looking at the statistics on the forecasted demand of fuel import, we are also rather interested in the fuel handling and terminal business. We are giving serious thoughts to getting into the energy market. We understand that there is going to be significant movement in the LNG and LPG sector.
We strongly feel that we have been blessed unlike any in this country and we have a responsibility to give back to this society that has given us so much. Were it not for the national development and growth, we wouldn’t have reached the heights that we are at. We are always looking into new opportunities, expanding our horizons. However, we remain firm and true to our mission of socio-economic development.